Both Microsoft and Apple have made major software upgrades over the past month. Microsoft has upgraded its Windows from version 8 to 8.1, and Apple has upgraded the operating system on its iPhones, iPads and iPods from iOS6 to iOS7. Here’s my take on each.
The Windows upgrade addresses some of the complaints about Windows 8, the first change to Windows in four years. Windows 8’s premise has been to enable a single device to have the capabilities of both a full computer and a tablet. It’s Microsoft’s response to the phenomenal success of the Apple iPad. Microsoft goes further than Apple by adding a touch display to its computers to make this possible.
Complaints have generally been that Windows 8 has two different user interfaces, the standard desktop and the array of large tiles called Modern, with many of the functions being duplicated on each: two mail clients, two browsers and two calendars. That meant you needed to decide which to use, adding some confusion.
While it’s less obvious, there are similar options with an iPad where you can access specific apps or the actual website. Examples include Google Mail, the New York Times, Southwest Airlines, and Open Table. (In fact, OpenTable’s latest iOS7 app is essentially unusable; you’ll want to use the website.)
With Windows 8.1, the appearance has changed little, but improvements were made to bridge the gap. Think of the tiles interface, called Modern, as a large Start “canvas” where you can access both apps and applications that run on the desktop, replacing the Start button that used to be a part of Windows.
Features have been added to make this canvas more usable. Tiles are easier to arrange, categorize and change size, and more information is displayed on the tiles themselves. This can sometimes be confusing, because on one occasion the Windows store tile advertised the new Facebook app, showing a large Facebook logo, and I mistook it for the Facebook app itself). More of the traditional desktop programs now have their own tiles, and the store now has many more apps, over 100,000.
You can now swipe upward from the Modern display and see an alphabetical list of all your apps, much like on Windows and Android phones. That makes it easy to move tiles on and off the Modern canvas and retrieve apps that you use only occasionally and don't want to clutter the display. You can also use the same wallpaper on the desktop and tile screens, further unifying the two modes.
The wide display found on most computers and Windows own Surface Pro portable is now better utilized. It will automatically show two windows in some apps or when you run two apps at the same time. It’s also easier to adjust their relative sizes or to switch to back a single Window. For example, clicking on a link in an email displayed the email on the left half and displayed the Website on the right, while moving the inbox message list off the display.
Searching has been improved to show results from your computer and the Web at the same time. SkyDrive, Microsoft’s online storage saves not only your files, but also remembers your computer’s apps and settings. That makes it possible to use another computer with Windows 8.1 and access your files and apps.
I did run into a few problems running 8.1 using the original SurfacePro notebook/tablet. Occasionally the screen was unresponsive to touch, particularly when using the Windows Explorer Web browser. Microsoft says it hasn’t heard of this issue but is checking.
Overall, Windows 8.1 is much improved. With its greater flexibility and speedier performance, it’s evolving into a powerful system. Most importantly, the SurfacePro is a single device that does double duty as a tablet and full computer, eliminating the need to carry both. It’s the one device you can carry everywhere.
Microsoft has also upgraded the Surface Pro to SurfacePro 2, which is slightly thinner and with a battery life claimed to be nearly double. I’ve not yet tried SurfacePro2, but I’ve found the original model to be well-designed and constructed, comparable to Apple’s quality.
Apple’s upgrade to iOS7 provides a whole new look to your iPhone, iPad and iPod. Over the month I’ve been using it, I find it to be a big improvement. It has a much more modern appearance, larger and clearer fonts, bright colors, and a movement away from simulating real-life objects to a much simpler approach.
For example, the simulated buttons in the calendar are replaced by red words. The new look resembles some of the design of Microsoft’s Modern: large, thin sans serif fonts, lots of white space and bright primary colors. While there are few functional changes to the built-in apps, much of the work has been on improving the aesthetics, the controls and usability.
A new control panel, accessed by swiping up on the home screen, provides a shortcut to some commonly used functions, including Airplane mode, calculator and a new flashlight.
There are a couple of cautions, however. Battery life is shortened; in my testing I found it to be about 10 percent to 15 percent shorter, about an hour a day on my iPhone5. The new iPhone5s has a 5 percent larger battery that will help, but battery life remains one of the iPhone’s weak points.
Once you move to iOS7, you’ll see a long list of apps that will want to be upgraded. Check their ratings first, as I found several to be a step back. Once you upgrade to iOS7, there’s no going back, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do it. Overall it's a significant improvement and it’s free.
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to email@example.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.